Tomorrow, the Economist’s World Ocean Summit in Singapore will highlight for an audience of global business leaders the latest concerns about threats to our oceans, and how business activities are impacting this ecosystem. While all of us can play a role in caring for our ocean resources, perhaps the only force powerful enough to reverse the decline of our global environment is commerce itself.

But what exactly are the biggest threats to our oceans, and what can businesses do to help address them while simultaneously advancing their own objectives? In 2009, scientists at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions published the “Pacific Ocean Synthesis,” a comprehensive analysis of threats to that ocean. After an extensive literature review, they concluded that the most serious hazards to ocean and coastal environments are climate change, overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution.

First on that list, climate change and its associated symptoms—from sea level rise to ocean acidification—is an ultimate threat: No matter what we do today, the world will be dealing with the impact of climate change on our oceans and coasts for decades to come.

Pollution represents another major threat. Plastic trash, when ingested, frequently kills albatross and sea turtles. Oil spills devastate coastal communities and pose a significant and immediate threat to ocean ecosystems. It goes without saying that spills also are bad for business: Fishing, tourism, and other ocean-related industries in the Gulf of Mexico were devastated by the Deepwater Horizon spill. And BP has already lost hundreds of millions of dollars and may have to pay an additional US$25 billion to settle related litigation.

A third major threat to oceans relates to overfishing and habitat destruction. Tens of millions of sharks are killed each year in global fisheries, many just for their fins, which are used for soup. The global shark fin trade is a major contributor to the near collapse of many shark populations worldwide. Because sharks are top predators and play a key role in ocean ecosystems, the decline in shark populations are threatening the health of our oceans and, in turn, the well-being of our coastal communities.

Successfully addressing these threats has been challenging. Some of them, such as climate change and pollution, are difficult to mitigate or contain. Others, such as overfishing and habitat destruction, are proximate issues we can address more easily with the right amount of political will and motivation.

Unfortunately, garnering that will has proven difficult. The Precautionary Principle, which the UN General Assembly adopted in 1982, encourages authorities to err on the side of conservation when faced with uncertainty. But decision-makers have been notoriously reluctant to impose precautionary decisions that might harm ocean-related businesses. As a result, governments by themselves have been largely unsuccessful in adopting public policy solutions that address the most serious threats to our oceans.

Thankfully, there is another option for reversing the decline of the oceans: harnessing the power of business. Many organizations and companies around the world have begun to work together for the benefit of the planet. These collaborations generally fall into two main categories—fisheries and ecotourism—and there may be a future opportunity in what’s known as “blue carbon.”

Fisheries and Aquaculture

The seafood industry has witnessed some of the most notable examples of teamwork. In recent years, major retailers and food-service companies such as Whole Foods Market, Compass Group, and Aramark have partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and pledged to buy seafood only from sustainable sources. Earlier, Unilever Corporation joined with World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the world’s largest conservation organization, to launch the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a group tasked with building powerful commercial incentives to end overfishing and rebuild global fisheries. Today, the MSC has certified 135 fisheries around the world as sustainable, and more than 12,000 seafood products bear its distinctive blue-and-white eco-label in world markets.

These early partnerships helped generate market demand for sustainable seafood that encourage and sustain the protection of fishery resources. Today, dozens of other large-volume seafood buyers in the retail and food-service industries, including giants such as Walmart and Safeway, have made similar commitments to source their seafood from sustainable fisheries and aquaculture operations. Many of the world’s biggest seafood buyers have now joined the sustainable seafood movement and are working with nonprofit partners such as the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership to improve their seafood sourcing policies. (Unilever failed to meet its original deadline to buy its seafood only from MSC-certified fisheries by 2005, but the company recently reaffirmed its commitment to sustainable seafood as well.)

Other collaborations, driven by the new market for sustainable seafood, are helping fisheries around the world improve their practices. In the Central Coast Groundfish Project, the Nature Conservancy is working with fishermen and seafood processors in Morro Bay, California, to improve the sustainability of the rockfish fishery there. The Conservancy purchased a number of trawlers and their associated trawl permits, equipped them with more ocean-friendly fishing gear, and leased them back to local fishermen. In turn, the fishermen agreed to work with the Conservancy and successfully petitioned fishery managers to close 3.8 million acres of offshore habitat to trawling. These actions have made fish from the region more attractive to green seafood buyers and restaurateurs focused on sustainability—some of whom are willing to pay more for sustainable seafood. Initiatives like this depend on assistance from governments, businesses, charitable foundations, and nonprofit organizations alike. There are now more than 65 such projects underway worldwide.

Ecotourism

Businesses are also working to protect ocean resources—and advance human well-being and corporate profits—through ecotourism. In the words of former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, “Attraction is replacing extraction.” In many places, “attraction” is even the dominant driver of economic growth. Nowhere is that phenomenon more evident than in California, where the ocean economy now dwarfs the state’s agricultural economy, in part due to the value of ocean-related tourism.

On the California coast, skippers of former fishing boats now take tourists out for daily whale-watching excursions. And the annual economic contribution of my organization, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and its 1.8 million visitors—about US$120 million, according to a recent study—roughly matches the landed value of the entire state’s commercial fisheries. Moving forward, the challenge for the local tourism industry—and its counterparts worldwide—is to adopt voluntary or regulatory measures to help ensure that coastal development and its associated impacts are not allowed to despoil the very values that attract so many tourists to the coast in the first place.

Blue Carbon

An emerging opportunity for business to protect our ocean resources is by investing in so-called blue carbon—or marine carbon offsets—to help restore coastal environments and reverse the impacts of climate change. According to scientists, marine plants such as mangroves and sea-grass beds absorb greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide at rates between 50 and 100 times faster than land vegetation. But while businesses can offset carbon emissions by investing in terrestrial forest conservation, no such programs for ocean and coastal environments currently exist. Organizations like Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund are identifying and developing coastal conservation projects that might be eligible as blue carbon investments. Experts say opportunities to invest in blue carbon will become available over the next several years. Capital for such projects might also come from the revenues collected from businesses through emissions-trading schemes like the one recently approved by the California Air Resources Board.

Without independent action by the business community, it’s unlikely that government and civil society alone will be able to successfully address the myriad threats facing our oceans from climate change, overfishing, coastal development, and pollution. It’s equally clear there’s a business case for action: Coastal and ocean areas represent a largely untapped opportunity for businesses to invest in safeguarding ecosystem services that return big dividends to investors and the economy as a whole. By launching fresh commitments to conserve our oceans and the ecosystem services they deliver, businesses can help safeguard key natural resources and expand green markets in the months and years ahead.